In our secular age, the liberal arts represent the last, best hope of ennobling democracy, of liberating us from absorption in the present, of raising our gaze above ourselves, without which we risk sinking below the level of the beasts. – See more at: http://www.mindingthecampus.com/originals/2014/04/the_liberal_arts_are_in_troubl.html#sthash.rFj4bUsa.dpuf
The Age of Innocence
- What does it mean to be innocent? Who in the book is innocent?
- Is innocence something to be valued according in this story? If innocence stands in contrast to “worldliness” what kinds of “worldliness” does Archer value and what kinds does he reject?
- Contrast the ways Archer describes May before he sees Ellen, during the engagement, after marriage and through the eyes of his children. Is May a static or dynamic character?
- Edith Wharton was probably the most privileged American novelist, yet she criticized the society she came out of, how do her criticisms succeed? How do they fail?
- Would Archer and Ellen have been happy if they had married? If they had run away to a far country? If Ellen had come to Archer once and then run back to Europe?
- What motivated Archer’s decisions in the book? Did his motivations change as the story progressed? Why or why not?
- Is Archer’s final action (or inaction) consistent with his character? Does it change the interpretation of his love for Ellen or May?
- Do you think any characters from the novel reveal Wharton’s own character?
- In the novel, how is America portrayed differently than Europe? Why do these differences exist? After reading this book, why do you think Edith Wharton decided to leave America and live in Europe?
- Referencing the discussion of the rejection of “people who write” by members of society, why does Archer believe it to be important for these two groups to mix? What are the dangers if they do not?
The amusing thing about having four children is that you can look back at when you had two and tell yourself it was easy. It wasn’t, of course, but you can tell yourself it was. I remember when I heard great things about the Pompeii exhibit at the National Gallery of Art and I was determined to see it. Most of the day was spent taking my two babies, 13 months apart, there and back. We took the metro and I don’t remember what happened there . . . it’s probably best that way. I do remember that we practically ran through the exhibit. I remember trying to look at the last painting and knowing that I shouldn’t as whines were beginning to erupt. Here’s a picture of the kids on our way back to the car that day:
My mother took us to museums when we were little. She always told other people, “When you take children to the museum be quick. You want them to have good memories so that they will come back. Count bugs in still lives, look for animals . . .” I can hear her advice, sound advice. I just remember being completely bored waiting for her at the end of an exhibit wondering what on earth she was looking at and if she would ever be finished. Something in her method worked however since I’m now dragging my own children to museums.
Last week we went on a spur of the moment trip to Baltimore. I thought, why not try and visit the Walter’s Art Museum? It’s even kid friendly with a children’s area in the basement! We had done an entire day at Port Discovery children’s museum the day before so what could go wrong? Oh yeah, we had done an entire day at Port Discovery children’s museum the day before. They were finished.
We parked and entered the Walter’s Art Museum only to descend immediately to the depths. There had been an eruption of screams at the sight of a mummy picture. The basement held many wonders. There was a movie theater, a shelf of puzzles, a wooden castle, a table where we had a snack, and even a discovery area with canopic jars and insect specimens in plastic to touch. It was very nice, but it was not what I had come to see.
I tried once more to take us upstairs. No sooner had we exited into statuary hall than the three-year-old began screaming once again. Greek statues? Mummies? Who knows why? It was clear to me that we needed to leave. Suddenly the older ones began crying because they wanted to see mummies. Just saying the word “mummy” made my younger daughter cry all the more. We left the building immediately and crossed the street. Even the large man who ran the parking lot with an air of short-tempered superiority was silenced in the our wake of screams. He took our money and gave me the car key choosing to yell at someone else instead. When we climbed into our car I wanted to cry, only I didn’t get the chance. Everyone in the back of the minivan needed hugs. We left the Walters and we left Baltimore. We’ll be back. Maybe not for a few years but we’ll be back.
Now my eldest kids are practically begging me to take them back. Now I know another strategy to add to my mother’s list of ways to make a museum interesting. Take your kids and then leave suddenly and dramatically so that they are left wondering what was in there after all?
Since I missed the opportunity to see a friend sing in a performance of Haydn’s The Creation I’ve been wanting to listen to it. I don’t have a recording. Isn’t YouTube wonderful? We listened to this today while eating scones since my daughter was sick and our usual driving to and fro screeched to a halt. Well we started by eating scones . . . it’s rather long so some people also ran around the house, danced, and built a train track that went under my desk while others folded laundry and did dishes. I’ll let you guess who did what.
My children and I really enjoyed the story of the first thanksgiving as told by Graham Green. It’s available through amazon prime stream for free, which is how we watch movies these days. (It started with an addiction to books . . . then an obscene amount of diapers delivered to our house and now this)
The movie is a bit slow but the story is very powerful. I cried as Squanto appeared to the pilgrims for the first time and miraculously speaks their language. This is a story like St. Patrick’s or Elizabeth Elliot’s of great forgiveness. It is encouraging to be reminded that the tragedy and abuse in our lives can give us a voice to help others who are in desperate need.
Why do we accept so easily that we might want foods that aren’t good for us but question the very notion that there is such a thing as music that might be bad for us? Although we seem to be losing the terminology to connotations of snobbery the very notion of “good taste” connects the value of food to the value of other pillars of culture such as music, poetry and the visual arts. In a recent article within the Journal of the Society for Classical Learning Ken Myers explains how for centuries it was assumed that good taste is a learned skill and that the purpose of education is to train students to acquire good taste so that they would love what is good and shun what is evil.
Any mother of small children knows this is a daily and daunting task. My two year old for instance insists that he must only eat bananas and graham crackers with peanut butter. My first two children were always brilliant eaters ready to devour lima beans, raw mushrooms and lentils so I’ve been stunned by the incredible pickiness of my younger two. Especially the baby. I look at his older sister and see that with much encouragement she has begun to accept some forms of sauce and peas and broccoli. Dum spiro spero. There is time for his palate to develop although I don’t suppose it would naturally unless I continue offering and suggesting alternatives. And it isn’t only food we discuss.
Mothers are not usually at the mercy of cultural relativism. We are bombarded by the conclusions of studies and the wisdom of authorities as to what our children should eat, watch, sing and play. I am constantly worrying over the shows my children watch, the clothes they wear, the music they listen to and the amount of time they play outside. These things are important and I wouldn’t believe myself if I were to suggest otherwise. Perhaps, however we should be more concerned about the process of where we are taking our children rather than fixating on what products they are using at this exact moment. There is so much truth, goodness and beauty in the world and perhaps the most important way as a mother to teach my children to love the true good and beautiful is to delight in such things myself. Sure they may run around the house like crazy people while I play Handel’s Israel in Egypt in the background and not notice, I don’t play it for them, I play it for myself. I may only get two lines of Dante read while the kids are suppose to be playing on the Chick-fil-e playground but at least I am holding a cup of coffee and a book and my body remembers what that’s like for a moment. They may be whining about how it’s taking forever as we pray the final prayers of the evening prayer service but I need to pray those words. I hope in the context of kisses and laughter one day the children will grow to love the things my husband and I love.
“If a lesser thing allure your love,
It is a vestige of that light which – though
imperfectly – gleams through that lesser thing.”
In Canto V Beatrice speaks to Dante as they ascend from the sphere of the moon to the sphere of Mercury. Dante is overcome in the last canto by her radiant beauty and she tells him, “I am so because of my perfected vision – as I grasp the good, so I approach the good in act.” She sees the face of God and becomes godlike. “We shall be like him [God], for we shall see him as he is.” (I John 3:2)
This wasn’t the Beatrice Dante fell in love with on earth. There is was a much more moon-like reflection of God’s beauty. It was a “vestige” of the Divine light that first caught Dante’s attention as a young man. Dante seems to use his infatuation as a picture of all earthly beauty. All of the beauties of this earth are truly delightful, he seems to say, but only as the moon compares to the sun. If we persist to heaven we will shine like stars.
As I slowly finish the Divine Comedy I hear in passages such as this the echo of Augustine. In his On Christian Doctrine Augustine tells the story of weary travelers who take a ship to return home but become so distracted by the beautiful ports and the excitement of sea travel that they never return to their homeland. (Clearly Augustine was envisioning a cushy sort of cruise like voyage and not the Mayflower). We are, as long as we are on earth, he says, like these weary travelers. We must never be fixated on the beauty that surrounds us but we must always remember that the earthly beauty delights us exactly because it reminds us of our true home.